At one point in the movie Hello Destroyer, the main character, Tyson Burr, is out of hockey and working in a slaughterhouse. He watches as a cow is guided along a conveyor belt and has its head secured before being stunned into unconsciousness and going limp. In the next scene, he’s running a squeegee along a floor covered in blood, then using a hose to remove bits of the cow’s guts from the walls.
The symbolism is undeniable. Hockey players are often referred to as pieces of meat. And like the cow who faces an inevitable fate, Burr is no longer of use to anyone in the hockey world and is having his fate decided for him.
“There’s no other outcome for that cow,” said Kevan Funk, the 29-year-old native of Banff, Alta., who wrote and directed the film that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend. “There’s a finality from what we need from you and as soon as you’re in that line, you’re stuck in there. There were multiple metaphors there.”
In case you haven’t already figured it out, Hello Destroyer is not a happy piece of filmmaking. It is depressing and bleak and purposely shot poorly lit. But also has a sense of gritty reality to it, from the dressing room banter to the on-ice scenes. It is a work of fiction, but it’s also based in a lot of reality. And that reality is sometimes very, very uncomfortable to watch. Funk didn’t set out to make a movie about hockey per se, but he uses hockey as his canvas to tell a story about how violence is cultivated and celebrated – lots of parallels to hockey there – then punished when the perpetrator, acting within that culture of violence, goes one step too far. Funk in fact acknowledged that the movie is part Todd Bertuzzi, part Derek Boogaard.
Unlike Bertuzzi and Boogaard, however, Tyson Burr never makes it beyond the mythical Prince George Warriors junior team. He’s a grinding fourth-line player trying to make his mark in the game. He’s raspy-voiced, shy and inarticulate, the son of a distant and emotionally unavailable father. Again, not so difficult to conceive in the hockey world. Burr is buying wholeheartedly into the team concept. One game he’s praised by his coach, Dale Milbury (an interesting choice for the character’s surname to be sure) for standing up for his teammates. The next, with his team down 5-0 on home ice after two periods, Milbury rips into his team and implores, “Is anyone going to protect this f---in’ house?”
Burr goes out and hits an opponent from behind into the boards, leaving the opponent with a broken vertebrae and bleeding on his brain. We never learn the ultimate fate of that player, but the rest of the movie chronicles how Burr has become a pariah, both within the hockey world that until that time embraced him and outside it. At one point, his father slaps him across the head and says, “You have people out there bending over backward to help you and you just keep shovelling sh-- back at them.”
“There are kids who dedicate their whole lives to this, but never make it and they end up 25 or 26 years old and are starting their lives from scratch,” Funk said. “And the reality is that not everyone can make it, but there’s this disposable aspect to it. And I think it’s really interesting in terms of what we essentially expect from so many of these people to give up just to have a shot.”
The movie continues to chronicle Burr’s decline. The team that needed him to play that physical style basically distances itself from the player, right down to having a lawyer craft an apology that not only gets in front of the issue, but releases the team from any kind of culpability. Calls to the coach go unanswered, teammates and billets cut him off and, ultimately, he’s put on a bus and sent back to work at the slaughterhouse and play pick-up beer league hockey with his co-workers.
It may be an extreme example, but it’s not completely off the mark. Chris Beauchamp, a child prodigy who struggled in junior hockey and never made the pro ranks, recalled the day he was cut by the Sarnia Sting two days before the team’s home opener in 2009. He showed up to the rink to find his equipment had been stuffed into a green garbage bag. “I said 'Thanks,' ” Beauchamp said. “I don’t know why I said thanks. They didn’t do me any favors.”
Players in U.S. college hockey have experienced the same kind of thing, showing up to practice one day to find that what they thought was a four-year scholarship was being revoked. When Terry Trafford was sent home by the Saginaw Spirit in 2014, he picked up his packed belongings at the arena, spoke to the GM and coach, then proceeded to commit suicide within hours. “They need to think of a better way to send someone home than to leave their sh-- packed in bags,” Trafford’s girlfriend Skye Cieszlak said at the time. “They don’t realize how much that messes with a 20-year-old kid. You think these people care about them, and they just throw all his sh-- in a stall and send you away.”
Junior hockey has come under fire lately for the treatment of its players, but it has also come a long way in many regards. It’s more the culture of the game as a whole that is on display in Hello Destroyer and Funk makes it clear that it’s very much a Canadian thing. Many of the same people who apologize to people they don’t know, or abhor guns and violence, don’t have the same feelings when it comes to hockey. The fact that the Canadian national anthem is playing on a Hockey Night in Canada game during the seminal scene of the movie is no accident.
This is not a movie for everyone. If you like your stories about hockey players sanitized and wrapped up with a happy ending, this is not your movie. If you don’t want to get out of your comfort zone when it comes to the collateral damage that can be inflicted on a hockey player who makes a mistake, do not watch this movie. But if you’re looking for a film that is challenging and thought provoking, Hello Destroyer is a must see.
“I think we often work too hard to try to oversimplify these things so they’re easier for us to digest,” Funk said. “Some of these things are difficult to grapple with and we don’t necessarily have an answer, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s when you start talking about it.”